Monday, October 24, 2011

Multiple Damage Tracks

I've been playing Echo Bazaar pretty constantly since I started a couple of months ago, and it's what brought this to mind for me, but Samhaine pointed out that Smallville did the same, and as I thought about it I realized that it's not a new idea, I just happen to really like Echo Bazaar's implementation of it. At the same time, I've been thinking about different ways to fix the save-or-die spells and effects that so dominate high-level 3.x D&D. An increasing number of indie games are embracing the inclusion of multiple damage tracks: ways other than just hit points to knock a character out of action, lethally or non-lethally, without creating a single save-or-die situation.

Smallville and Mouse Guard, among others, track things like bad moods that a character may suffer - Angry, Tired, and the like. This works well for tracking consequences of conflicts, so that an argument or a physical challenge don't necessarily result in hit point damage or nothing. Ultimately, though, I think they're a little more granular and specific than I'm particularly interested in stealing for other games.

D&D 3.x introduced "new" damage tracks to the game, in the form of ability score damage and negative levels. These mechanics were interesting and new takes on simulationism when 3e first released, but over the course of several years and a great deal of design work (monsters, magic items, spells, even a revised edition... you name it) it became increasingly clear that they slow down play egregiously, because so much recalculation takes place. In my experience, players repeat the math process for each separate roll that involves a reduced ability score or negative level. It's the same kind of mental slowdown and "no wait that should have missed" that beneficial spell effects like bless and prayer cause, but with the added difficulty of lost spell slots, spell DCs, and spell access. In short, adjusting ability scores has cascading effects throughout the rules that can be all too easy to overlook.

I wonder if it would actually represent simplification to count ability score damage upward in the form of "damage" scores, in much the same way that negative levels count upward. For example, a character has 16 Strength and fails a saving throw against Medium Spider Venom (1d4 Str/1d4 Str). What if the result was 16 Strength and 4 points of a Weakened stat (-2 to attack, damage, and Strength saves)? This would make it so PCs don't lose feat access when they no longer meet feat prereqs (but then, that's almost always overlooked anyway), but still become helpless when their Weakened stat equals their relevant ability score. It would similarly not change spells prepared in any way, though there's no reason it couldn't apply to spell DCs. (But seriously, do yourself a favor and turn all spell DCs into attack rolls against fixed defenses so that that's actually intuitive.)

But this isn't quite on the mark of what I mean to cover in this post.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Crafting Systems Design: 4e Hack

I've been working on creating a decent crafting system for tabletop games for as long as I've worked on this blog, and then some. I've discussed some of the hurdles to doing so before; the things that make crafting interesting in MMOs don't apply in tabletop gaming. There are big issues with itemization scaling. And so on. A conversation with Kainenchen got me thinking about this again the other night, and today I think I had a breakthrough, though I won't know until it's all written.

Part of the itemization scaling problem is that passive benefits are very powerful. If I give weapons, armor, and shields ever-increasing bonuses to their relevant abilities, those will in turn stack with their magic items, and while it may remain playable, it will skew the balance axiom of the game in a way I feel obligated to avoid in order to call this valid design. In 4e Dark Sun, though, the designers introduced rules for weapons of substandard materials. They wanted PCs to take interest in these, while maintaining the theme that they are substandard in some way. This could be unfolded into a wider variety of "powers" associated with specific items.

Also, I recently read this excellent post, the summary of which is that Dungeoneering can reasonably be unfolded into Engineering and used as a smithing skill. The fact that dwarves get a racial +2 to this skill is just gravy for my fondness for this idea. I have currently only worked out this idea for durable goods such as weapons, armor, and shields. I have glimmers of ideas for consumable goods such as alchemy, but that needs further consideration.

Without further ado:

Assume that, at base, every item that can be crafted involves three components that vary in quality, from the very poor to the legendary. (Some components may not be physically incorporated into the final product, such as the water that quenches the heated metal. This is irrelevant to the system but useful in the fiction.) The bone of a normal animal is a very poor weapon-making material, while bronze is below average, steel is good, and adamantium is legendary. These range in value from -4 to +6 or higher.

To craft an item, the creator makes three skill checks against the item's DC; most weapons have a DC of 25, while I would expect armorsmithing to vary a bit more. Each check is modified by one of the components. Failing one of the checks by 10 or more points ruins the project. Failing the check by 5 to 9 points results in a -2 penalty, not to the next skill check but... well, I'll get to that in a second. Failing the check by 1-4 points results in a -1 penalty to that later roll. Succeeding by 5 points nets a +1 bonus, by 10 a +2 bonus, and so on.

Once you've made all three skill checks, assuming you haven't ruined the project, you will have generated a number that is anywhere from -6 to, who knows, +12 or more. This modifier is in turn applied to a d20 roll, checked against the following chart.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Technoir: Player-side Review

Samhaine has recently been posting his GM-side analysis of Technoir, and I've been talking about it more or less nonstop in my posts, so here's my actual post discussing it. In the second session he ran, I played Thornton "Pierce" Kimball, an investigator who had been working for Minnesota's Big Pharma corps and had picked up some medical knowledge along the way. He was also pretty 'borged out, with an experimental headjack connected to an external derma-linked router patch, and reflex stimulators to give him the speed to get out of trouble. See, Pierce couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper sack, a fact which would become relevant (but, curiously, not detrimental to my enjoyment) during the session.

He was both in debt to and obsessed with one Arma Winn, whose shop stood in downtown Minneapolis (also relevant). He got one of his connections to another PC through his employment with Pen Re; Kainenchen's PC was Pen Re's cousin, if I recall correctly. Also, I had some previous contact with Four Color Criticism's character, who in turn was buddies with Stands-in-Fire's character. All of this occurred as a systemic part of character creation; for one-shot or short-run games, this is perfect. It was, if anything, a genre-appropriate and more stripped-down parallel of Spirit of the Century's excellent system for connecting characters, so that you don't waste a whole session on "okay, why are we hanging out together?" (As a brief digression, if I had expected this to be a longer-term game, I might have wanted more complete control over my character's starting nature and relationships, depending on the degree to which the character was fully formed in my head prior to character creation.)

Our group had a slow and kind of rocky time getting into the game's plot, specifically because of Technoir's GM-side innovations. There's a baseline "something going on" at the start of play, but neither the players nor the GM can really know what it is or who's behind it until the players start investigating it. This means that the GM can't exactly telegraph reasons that you'd start asking a particular contact about a situation, because until you go talk to them, he hasn't generated that information. If I understand correctly, the GM couldn't pre-generate this information if he wanted to, because the order in which PCs proceed makes a difference. It's all randomly rolled anyway. I like investigative games and I like games that reward me for paying attention to the information that goes out over the course of play, so there was a sense of... breaking the ice, I guess.

To explain just a little further, I tend to be cautious and circumspect in questioning NPCs, so as to avoid burning bridges - I figure I can always ratchet up the pressure later. Technoir doesn't really approve of this approach, because noir doesn't approve of this approach. Noir protagonists - not to say heroes - get in people's faces. They put them off balance. They shake the tree and see what falls out. Maybe the next time I start a new character for a game that is more than a one-shot, I'll give that a try.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

More on Skill Systems, Particularly 4e

There's been a lot of talk lately about skills in D&D 4e. Sarah Darkmagic's last two posts (here and here) are a working summary of the current round of this discussion, and I can't say enough good about some of Rob Donoghue's posts on this topic, though you'll have to do some digging to find them at this point.

The point that hasn't quite been addressed yet is the inequality of demand between skills. This is an issue that is well-nigh universal to games that include a "normal" array of skills. (Technoir, with its tightly constrained list of verbs, doesn't have this issue. There are some things everyone needs to be able to do, and some things only one person in the party needs to be able to do. For example, if there's a chasm, probably everyone will have to cross it (possibly with some help from their friends). If the whole group wants to sneak from Point A to Point B, every character in the group needs to roll Stealth. If an opponent is hidden, everyone needs to roll Perception to spot the enemy. Let me clarify "need" in this case: parties can adapt to a small percentage of PCs being able to hit the target DCs, typically by doing something that lowers the DCs or increases the bonuses for the other PCs' rolls. There's something to be said for this kind of teamwork, and I'll come back to this point in a minute.

At the other extreme, the game has skills that need just one specialist per group. Conveniently, these skills generally represent highly specialized training. Arcana, Dungeoneering, Heal, History, Nature, Religion, and Thievery are all examples of this. Heal is the kind of skill that newbie players imagine that everyone in the party should have (by comparison, I believe just about every PC in a LARP should pick up some way to stabilize the wounded), but in the games I've played, it's really only useful to the party member with Ritual Casting - my players didn't have the patience to treat diseases nonmagically, if they even remembered that it is possible. The other functions of Heal are good, except that there's almost always a better way to accomplish the same thing using a power.
As a quick side note, Pendragon not only has this problem, it egregiously exacerbates it, as the main way to improve a skill is through use. If you aren't good enough at something to be the one the party calls upon to use it, you're never going to be, unless the party is split up.
Lore-oriented skills are subject to this kind of specialization in every game. D&D 2e and... well, a lot of games made in the 90s famously suffered from this, as they created monstrously long skill lists that no player in his right mind would ever think of learning. Massive skill lists offering pointless levels of specialization are the conceptual reversal of the (warning: TV Tropes link coming up! Do not click it if you have something else you have to do today!) Omnidisciplinary Scientist. The Omnidisciplinary Scientist is, well, also the Brain of the Five-Man Band, and thus is awfully useful as a niche in a PC team. D&D stats (and SIFRP stats, while I'm thinking about it) lend themselves to creating just such a character, as all Lore-type skills are based off of the same stat (Int in D&D, Knowledge in SIFRP). There's a very short list of reasons you'd have more than one character in a party pursue the same Lore-type skill:

  1. They get the skill for free anyway (Arcana for several arcane-source classes, Religion for divine-source classes).
  2. The players involved find it sufficiently valuable to have two chances to learn things about that skill, and they've got other bases covered well enough already.
  3. The characters are satisfying prereqs for something else they plan to pick up (such as 3.x prestige class and feat prereqs), or the skill has other applications (Mage: the Awakening and rote skills).
  4. The game in question has a combined-effort or Aid Another system that grants greater bonuses for hitting higher DCs and/or having more ranks in the skill (3.x D&D, Mage: the Awakening).
  5. Miscellaneous roleplaying reasons.
What I'm getting at here is that some skills just aren't necessary for characters-in-general as others. Thievery is an interesting case here, as 4e is the first edition of the game since the creation of the thief in which one can (by hook or by crook) play a traps-and-locks rogue without explicitly being a rogue or thief (whatever we're calling it in the edition in question). 3.x let other character classes buy cross-class ranks in Open Lock, Search, and Disable Device, only to declare (through Trapfinding) that only rogues could even roll against some kinds of traps.